Here are two fads trying to tell us something about this uneasy moment in American life. The first is an account of a conspiracy theory asserting that the slaughter of school kids in Newtown CT was an elaborate hoax orchestrated by the Obama White House or sinister "Big Government." The second reports that << a group called @KUBoobs has started a Twitter sensation, asking for University of Kansas students to send them photos of their boobs for good luck before games. Now dozens of other colleges have Twitter accounts asking students to do the same.>>
No doubt it's mere coincidence, but both fads are anxious about fertility.The murdered children in Newtown distress us partly because kids symbolize triumph over death, since they're posterity, the future. They also symbolize the child in us, the neotenic core self that needs protection in an overwhelming world. However much we grieve for the slain children, we also anxiously identify with them as helpless victims, the way some activists personally identify with a fetus.
The conspiracy fantasy denies that the deaths ever happened. It insinuates that "big government" or Obama staged phony murders as a pretext to disarm "us." This is an echo of NRA propaganda and Hollywood dystopias such as The Matrix, in which enemy elites manipulate us childlike innocents like sinister parents. In reality, the rampage killer was close to, or even trapped in, childhood, avenging himself in a school where he'd been an unhappy child. And at least some of "us" who love guns have regularly proved to be atrociously violent.
The alien elites, then, are using our love of children to make "us" impotent. It follows that we should be enraged at the conniving "dictator" Obama. Meanwhile the boobs contest also appears to be going viral, and is likewise based on fantasies of fighting death, in this instance by having women fans send in photos of their stylishly revealing cleavage. The tone is playfully mock-heroic, but the excitement is real enough for the craze to keep spreading. Here's a bit of the group's "history":
<<OUR BELOVED KANSAS JAYHAWKS WERE FACING CERTAIN DEFEAT FROM THE EVIL MISSOURI TIGERS IN A FINAL BATTLE FOR SUPREMACY. THOUSANDS OF JAYHAWK FAITHFUL WATCHED HELPLESSLY AS THE BORDER RUFFIANS FROM MISSOURI SOUGHT TO PILLAGE AND DISGRACE OUR BEAUTIFUL CATHEDRAL. FAR ABOVE THE GOLDEN VALLEY GLORIOUS TO VIEW, ONE WOMAN HAD ENOUGH. SHE CHANNELED THE POWER INHERENT IN ALL TRUE JAYHAWK FANS TO RESURRECT THE JAYHAWKS FROM A 19 POINT DEFICIT TO A STUNNING 1 POINT VICTORY!>>
In this fantasy, by "channeling [sexual] power," the endowed women make the men—and themselves— heroes. It's a mating call. In a nature documentary, it would be female sex display encouraging males to "battle" rivals. It's also an innocuous version of the ancient military practice of bringing womenfolk and prostitutes on campaign to manage morale in the face of death. Fertility is one of our deepest means of controlling the terror of death. Flowers at a funeral or at Easter are an obvious example, but in fact fertility markers are everywhere. What's more, the brain chemistry of sexual arousal defuses stress. Endorphins and oxytocin, say, promote bonding and nurturing behavior, but there's also some evidence that oxytocin sharpens tribal feelings to the exclusion of outsiders. It's how we're built, male and female.
The neurophysiology goes along with the fantasy that breasts have a magical power to help defeat "enemies." There's a lot going on here. It's unclear whether hormones stir up fantasies or vice versa. The fad can function as a dating service or a mixer. It can also be a sort of bosomy Facebook. The mock-heroic tone of the "history" makes it shared group play, just as the mutual admiration of athletic prowess and sex appeal boosts self-esteem.
The playful tone of the game works to defuse the temptation to moralize about its superficiality or its commodification of sex, etc. The craze draws energy from its winking defiance of taboos against self-display and sexual boasting.
What's intriguing—and relates the boobs fad to the conspiracy—is the media model underlying the fantasies. Social media and the internet can pump up group fantasies with some ease. For one thing, they encourage impulsiveness. The boobs fad wouldn't get very far if fans had to photograph, develop, and then lick stamps to send, their charms. And as in a blog, the open invitation to audience participation can swell interest. The team is using sex to woo fans as the fans woo the stars. The goal is to grow a crowd. The fantasies aspire to mimic Facebook's exponential growth.
Just for fun, suppose we take a closer look. Both fantasies pump up heroic self-esteem. The players are sports warriors, desirable babes, and the exceptional whistleblower exposing ghastly government treachery. At the same time, it's all trivial media entertainment. The athletes are playing soldiers fighting "evil border ruffians"—which sounds like Taliban insurgents in the tribal areas. But they're focused not on lovemaking or battle, but on a dream of nuzzling at mum's breast and enjoying the juice of mother love. It's Jay Gatsby fantasizing about climbing towards the stars to "suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder." It's those Dutch sailors gawping at "the fresh green breast of the New World."
Where boobs meet bombs, so to speak, is in the apocalyptic thriller rhetoric of the athletic "FINAL BATTLE FOR SUPREMACY." Unwittingly, satirically, the team's pitch echoes radical gun advocates' warnings that we are on the verge of "big government" totalitarianism and race war that will have to be fought by freedom-loving Rambo insurgents with Bushmaster assault rifles and stockpiled canned beans.
Curiously, the conspiracy theory also models an infantilized role for the freedom warriors. While there's no nipple to nuzzle, the theory imagines a Matrix-like government disarming citizens, reducing "us" to powerless children. In the NRA version, the alien-born, nominally black president wants to emasculate "us." He and his insider elite command vast resources of actors, agencies, and media to delude and dominate us. His deception tries to make "us" feel guilty about a young man's slaughter of children so we'll surrender our weapons and anger.
The conspiracy argues that all is illusion, as in the film "The Truman Show" (1998). In effect, like the internet, reality is a tissue of digitized facsimiles. The theory spins a metafiction: a story about evildoers spinning stories for the gullible. But the meta-perspective has no substance, only the NRA bumper sticker theme of taking our guns. Since the screen shows a million opinions, yours can be as true as any—especially if you're reinforcing a sensational issue in the air such as gun control.
Happily, the boobs fad is more playful than paranoid. But both fantasies assume heroism to be a manipulation of images. You can see advertising culture at work in both. The boobs are competing "FOR SUPREMACY" as the athletes are. In slang, you recall, to seduce someone is to "score." And the conspiracy too implies a contest, since part of the thrill of debunking is the conviction of "superior" understanding. A coterie of believers become privileged heroes penetrating the maze. Likewise, the boobs craze is unofficially a beauty contest for "superior" bodies. More voluptuous endowment makes you more woman, just as more victories make you more a Mensch.
Both fantasies trivialize experience. It's supermarket tabloid thrills (ALIENS USE TV TO FRY YOUR BRAIN WAVES) and a wet teeshirt contest. It's unbelievable that a hoax on the scale of the Newtown murders could be kept secret by hundreds of actors, especially with real citizens watching. But the conspiracy doesn't imagine or care about actual people. Even in the fan fantasy, women are boobs and men are warriors on a score board.
By contrast, the conspiracy is authentically nasty. It denies the reality of suffering, delusional violence, and death in Newtown. At the same time it reinforces the conviction that "our" government can't be reformed or even made to work for us. Like James Yeager, who splashed all over the media with his Youtube and Facebook threat to "start killing people" if the "dictator" Obama takes away "our" guns, the conspiracy game flirts with insurrection and terrorism. To be sure, there is much to worry about in Washington's behavior. But the conspiracy takes government to be so demonic that it can't be challenged in any reasonable way, but only battled with live ammo or scorned from behind a video screen. In the same breath the theorist waffles, with mealy-mouthed disclaimers that half take it all back. The result is passive aggression, a threat display that points a real gun, as it were, and says "Bang," and then "Only joking." The risk of course is that with so much self-intoxicating heroic fantasy in the air, the standoff between action and bluff will end badly.
1. ^ De Dreu CK, Greer LL, Van Kleef GA, Shalvi S, Handgraaf MJ (January 2011). "Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism". Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 108 (4): 1262–6.doi:10.1073/pnas.1015316108. PMC 3029708.PMID 21220339.
2. This is a nifty example of the style I analyze in Berserk Style in American Culture (2011). The conspiracy's wish to turn the agonizing slaughter of children into a clever hoax is an invitation to read Ernest Becker, especially The Denial of Death and Escape from Evil.